Thanks to our national economic crisis and its squeeze on arts organizations, American theatergoers are more familiar than ever with small productions. Tiny casts, shoestring budgets, and solo shows have been our steady diet for the past decade. Mike Daisey, Kevin Kling, and other solo performers are all artistically interesting, of course, but don't forget that one person with one set and zero costume changes is also economically convenient.
But this fall, ACT Theater is going in the opposite direction, attempting something much more ambitious—a world premiere of the ancient epic poem Ramayana. A quick, stupidly inadequate plot summary of the poem: A god-woman named Sita, the wife of a god-man named Rama, is kidnapped by a bad dude named Ravana. Rama goes on a long rescue mission that involves making friends with an army of monkey-men—who have their own internal troubles—and several epic battles happen plus long philosophical reflections about the nature of the cosmos and how people should live their lives.
ACT's adaptation has been incubating for two years with two talented directors (Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie), two respected playwright-adapters (Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm), a choreographer (Maureen Whiting), a large cast with some powerhouse actors (Ray Tagavilla, Anne Allgood, Todd Jefferson Moore, many others). And, over that time, dozens of Seattle theater-makers have shepherded the show through workshops, helping the core team figure out which scenes to scrap and which to keep.
Ramayana is enormously deep in its cultural and geographical reach—in some countries, it's like the Bible plus the Iliad plus the Odyssey plus Mother Goose bedtime stories wrapped up in one—but alien to many American theatergoers. A few weeks ago, sitting in ACT's upstairs design studios, three members of the Ramayana production team—Beattie, actor/dancer Tikka Sears, and composer and sound designer Brendan Patrick Hogan—struggled to explain the essence of the epic and why ACT has spent more than two years assembling its version.
Beattie has been thinking about a performance cycle of Ramayana to be performed every few years, like Wagner's Ring at Seattle Opera, since the late 1990s. This fall performance, he hopes, will be the beginning—in his words, "the ur-text"—of a much longer and deeper production. "In the early stages, we thought of trying to do multiple evening-length performances of Ramayana," he said. "But for us to successfully tell it to a new audience, we had to contain it." The current version, he said, will probably be around three hours long—too short for his ideal, but a good starting place for a years-long project.
Sears, who has shuttled between Indonesia (specifically, the island of Java) and the United States since she was a kid, described Ramayana as a "deeply sacred text" for some people and a toweringly important but secular text for others. Beattie called it "a map for many cultures" from India to Myanmar to Cambodia and beyond. Both talked about how traditional shadow puppeteers would prepare for the physical and emotional endurance test of performing all-night versions of Ramayana by meditating in haunted graveyards or rivers where shrimp would bite their feet.
They also described how the story has been leveraged by vastly different political and cultural movements through the years. "It is used to both attack the status quo and support the status quo," Beattie said. Like the Bible, it can be interpreted in hundreds of ways. During recent political turmoil in Thailand, for example, the king encouraged performances of Ramayana because a traditional Thai interpretation makes it very pro-royalty. But past political parties in Indonesia, Sears added, sponsored shadow-puppet performances with more antiauthoritarian and Communist interpretations. After the 1965 coup, she said, some puppeteers spent years in jail.
ACT's process of building Ramayana has involved dozens of actors, designers, and cultural "ambassadors" from Seattle's many Asian communities, both to get input and to generate excitement about the theater's unusual undertaking. It is unusual not only as an attempt to distill and translate a deeply revered epic for a new audience, but also unusual in its scope. Beattie hopes to bring in street vendors to set up food and craft stalls and fill the theater with the colors, smells, and sounds of another world. He wants us to feel as epically about it as he does.
He compared the process of working with so many adapters and directors to a bunch of writers for a TV show sitting around a table and hashing out a single script. He also compared it to an actor in a classical play who isn't just giving his or her individual performance, but channeling thousands of years of accumulated cultural weight (as with Oedipus, Electra, Hamlet, et al.) into one telling of the story. In both examples, he said, the individual is "part of a multivalent tradition"—one of many, many voices. "There isn't any reason we can't find a way to do that in this theater."
The official rehearsals begin on September 18. If all goes according to plan, this Ramayana will be a beginning, not a culmination.